RENE CAZENAVE, 1941-2010

A special genius in raising funds for the creation of a community controlled infrastructure, empowering residents of low-income neighborhoods


Rene M. Cazenave died at home June 27 in the company of his wife, Sylvie, and sister, Denise. He is also survived by his son, Lucien, and two-week-old granddaughter, Drew. He was 69.

A native San Franciscan, Rene was instrumental in the creation of the community empowerment movement in the city from its modern inception in the 1970s. He was at the center of community politics for nearly 40 years. He was a key member of Citizens for Representative Government, the community-based coalition that devised and successfully campaigned for district election of supervisors in 1977, a move that led to the election of the first directly elected African American, Chinese American, and gay supervisors. He helped organize and found the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of faith- and community-based nonprofits that produce permanently affordable housing. Over the past 30 years, members of the group have developed or acquired and rehabilitated some 25,000 affordable homes and apartments in one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S. He helped create and then save KPOO community radio. He loved his family, jazz, old San Franciscans (indeed, he became one himself), dogs and cats, and reading and debating history.

His dad, also Rene and also a native, spent his working life in newspapers, retiring as a Hearst Examiner editor. Rene learned from his dad — and mom, who was also a native — every parish, every street, every neighborhood, and every bar in San Francisco. He was invaluable to a movement centered on community organizing, but made up of folks who hailed from everywhere but San Francisco. He shared his knowledge of the city — and his love for the people of the city as well.

Rene's special genius was in raising funds for the creation of a community controlled infrastructure, empowering residents of low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco. He was the master in the use of the federal Community Development Block Grants program (CDBG), and was an important part of a community effort to restructure the Redevelopment Agency, leading to the use of the agency's tax-increment financing mechanism. At a conservative estimate, these two public sources — CDBG and tax increment financing — have poured more than $1 billion into low-income San Francisco communities since 1975. Thousands of lower- and fixed-income San Franciscans who didn't even know Rene's name found a home, got critical job training, played in a gym, ate a hot meal at a senior center, got treatment for an illness at a community clinic, and had an opportunity to vote for a supervisor who represented their interests as a result of his skillful and tireless advocacy.

Rene was a fully integrated political being. To an astounding degree, his moods were set by the politics of his city. He held a deep and unshakable belief in socialism and humanism. He was heartsick at the decline of working class San Francisco. But his depression and disappointment over political events never caused him to give up or give in. He loved the fight, he loved the action, and he worked harder than most to the very end.

We all know that we stand on the shoulders of giants. But every now and then we are lucky enough to actually stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Those of us who knew Rene Cazenave were that lucky. Services are pending.

Calvin Welch worked with Rene Cazenave for 39 years doing community organizing, advocacy, and politics together. He, along with hundreds of others, misses the hell out of him already.